Miami Paramedic Heads Syrian Refugee Relief Operation on Greek Island

Jan 21, 2016

Alison Thompson has spent the last few months commuting between Miami and the Greek island of Lesbos where she runs a network of volunteers helping refugees from the war torn Middle East.

An Australian-born paramedic, she describes herself as a full-time global humanitarian volunteer, with a simple motto: “everyone’s needed.”

After a short break for the holidays the Australian-born paramedic headed back to Lesbos on Monday carrying winter supplies, warm clothing and solar lamps. ”It’s absolutely freezing in Lesbos, it’s been snowing lately,” she said as she packed her bags at her Coconut Grove home.

After she put out a call on Facebook for warm clothing a large box arrived on her porch. “Wow! Look at all this stuff, socks and hats and gloves and fleeces,” she exclaimed as she opened the package.

Alison Thompson opening boxes of donated clothing in her living room.
Credit John Power / WLRN

The United Nations says more than one million migrants have reached Europe by sea over the last year in what is now Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. Most arrive in Lesbos after making the six-mile crossing in small boats and dinghies from Turkey.

Her office is decorated with awards from humanitarian work spanning almost 15 years, from the Sept. 11 attacks in New York to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

A board inside Alison Thompson's home office, where she writes daily notes and must do's.
Credit John Power / WLRN

She says the European refugee crisis is the toughest she has witnessed.

“The thing that’s different with the Syrian refugee crisis is there’s no solution, and there’s no closure. Usually when we go off for a disaster there’s a certain area, we clean it up and we get organized and they have a place to live again,” she said. “But this time there is no end in sight.”

Slim with flowing blond hair, Thompson was raised by missionaries in the Australian bush, and grew up accustomed to native food, strange languages and bugs. She doesn’t buy the argument that helping refugees enter Europe is placing too big a burden on countries already brimming with immigrants. “These are good people who are fleeing. They have nowhere to go. We have to have humanity first,” she said.

Thompson created her own group, Third Wave Volunteers, partly inspired by witnessing the inefficient bureaucracy of some of the larger international relief organizations. “I realized there are so many big orgs around the world but the disasters are getting bigger and bigger and there so many gaps out there,” she said.

“Over the years watching people donate to the big organizations I saw the money does not get there. I witnessed that over and over, in Haiti, in Sri Lanka.”

She spends her days in Miami on the phone organizing supplies, talking to donors and volunteers all over the country.  “Alison is remarkable in times of disaster,” said Danielle Butin, founder of Afya Foundation, which recovers surplus medical supplies from the New York area in support of health projects around the world, including the relief effort in Lesbos. “She is a strong, determined, beautifully contagious human being,” added Butin in a phone interview from Greece where she is visiting to assess refugee needs.

Thompson’s laptop is full of videos of refugees arriving in Lesbos. In one of them, volunteers wade out to a large boat, and carry elderly women and crying children to the shore.  “These crossings are so dangerous, it’s inhumane, people sit on top of each other … crush pregnant women, …  and when they usually get closer to shore they panic and they all start jumping up, boats flip, babies fly out,” she said, describing how boats arrive day and night. “They can’t swim, so we have to go out after them, doing rescues.”

Before she left for Greece, she visited the American Medical Academy training center in Kendall to brush up on how to save a drowning baby.

Cesar Moreton, her paramedic instructor, took her through some steps to intubate an infant and drain its belly using suction.  “I think it’s amazing that there’s people like Alison that just drop everything and go and live that lifestyle,” he said.

“It’s very brave, the things she’s been around and seen.”

Alison Thompson with instructor Cesar at American Medical Academy training center in Kendall, both training on a dummy baby.
Credit John Power / WLRN

Thompson says coming home to Miami is therapeutic. She recharges her batteries in her garden.  “When I go away on these disaster missions I see so much death and dying that when I come back I just want to go grow things. I get my hands in the earth again and it’s very healing.”

The garden patio is also where she charges rows of solar powered lights, called solar puff. Designed by a friend in New York, they are cube-shaped in a folding origami design, weigh little and are easy to pack.

Solar Puff lights recharging using solar power inside Alison Thompson's home.
Credit John Power / WLRN

She is taking boxes of them with her to provide light to refugees when they land on the rocky shores at night to guide them up a mountainside to a camp, and to provide light in the refugee tents.

As her volunteer work is unpaid, Thompson counts on the unequivocal support of her husband, Cuban American businessman Albert Gomez, who she met while volunteering in Haiti after the earthquake. “It’s important for me to fill the gaps wherever I can and help her and be there for her,” he said.

Even if peace does return to Syria, things aren’t likely to quiet down for Thompson. She plans to be there, wherever the next crisis needs volunteers. 

Alison Thompson using a lit Solar Puff in her office.
Credit John Power / WLRN